The subject Sabina liked to talk about most was her mother. “She was mean,” she’d say of Maria. “Mean how?” Janet would ask. They’d be sitting on the couch in Sabina’s sublet, two young women who’d both had difficult histories. It turned out Maria was a very detached mother. Distant and moody. If Sabina was too noisy or made a fuss over something, whining over a toy she wanted, Maria would smack her hard on the bottom or angrily send her to her room. She could be in a bad temper for days. And then she’d brighten, be charming, singing around the house and hugging little Sabina to her. She was much easier on Sabina’s sister, Andra, who was four years younger. This may have had to do with politics — Andra was born at the end of the Ceausescu era, a year before the dictator and his wife were executed. Times grew less stark after that and even a child Sabina’s age could feel a great weight had lifted.
But throughout her childhood, Sabina had the distinct feeling that Maria favored Andra for reasons she couldn’t understand. If Andra wanted a toy or candy she could have it right away. Maria spent hours reading to Andra, hours teaching her to sew, sing funny songs, play games and silly tricks. Sabina had had none of that, and while she loved her younger sister, she couldn’t help but feel resentful. Her closest ally was her grandfather, Gheorghe, who lived with them in their house in Brasov, a sweet elderly man with fluffy white hair and dark twinkling eyes that seemed able to see right through her.
He was the one who read to her when she was a little girl, who sang her songs and explained the world. Her father was sweet, too, but always working, spending days on assignment as a set designer in Bucharest, a three hour drive from where they lived. She had heard from various people that Maria had once been a well-known actress, hard to believe when she looked at her mother’s angry, hard bitten face. Neither she nor Andra were ever shown any of Maria’s films, but one day, snooping through her mother’s closet, Sabina found an album of photos and news clippings. She must have been about twelve at the time, and shivers ran down her back as she flipped through the pages.